NEH grant to NIU will help preserve history at institutions nationwide – NIU Today

For centuries, important cultural materials—from books, historical documents and letters to photographs, carvings and paintings—could be stored away, only to be rediscovered at some point in the future.
However, as Northern Illinois University Libraries’ Jaime Schumacher points out, many contemporary materials that might be used by future generations to understand us are now only digital in nature, including videos, photos, social media communications, blogs, artwork, news reports, music, articles and emails.
“Preserving these materials for future access is a complex challenge,” said Schumacher, who serves as NIU Libraries’ director of scholarly communications and is known internationally for her expertise in the preservation of digital materials. She and NIU colleague Drew VandeCreek have been working for the past decade to help NIU and other institutions nationwide preserve digital materials of cultural value.
Now the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is providing a major boost to their efforts.
NEH has awarded the pair with a $349,000 grant to provide training to archivists through NIU Libraries’ Digital POWRR Project, short for Preserving Digital Objects with Restricted Resources. The project, which has already trained hundreds of professionals at medium and smaller institutions, is focused on preservation of digital materials that increasingly make up large parts of the collections of libraries, archives and museums.
“This new grant will focus on helping organizations that serve cultural heritage institutions in under-represented communities, including the Native American, Latinx and Black communities,” Schumacher said.
“Those materials that are created and held by people and organizations from under-represented communities are at particular risk of loss due to long-term, systemic inequities in the distribution of resources and opportunities,” she added. “Larger and well-funded organizations have long-standing funding sources and access to technical skill sets that allow their digital materials to be safely curated and preserved. Folks working at many historical societies, tribal archives, local museums and other smaller-scale cultural-heritage organizations lack the funding and particular skills necessary to curate and preserve their unique digital materials.”
In all, the Digital POWRR Project has now attracted a total of about $1.4 million in federal funding support, with earlier grants coming from NEH and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The project, which began at NIU and is now also affiliated with Arizona State University, has trained 520 professionals from 367 institutions, 35 states and the District of Columbia, and 10 Native American tribes and cultural heritage institutions.
“Digital materials are very subject to loss for a number of reasons,” said VandeCreek, director of digital scholarship for NIU Libraries.
“The media on which they are stored can fail or be damaged by a natural disaster or accident,” he said. “The software format in which they were created and stored can also become obsolete. In some instances, data stored on intact storage devices can be compromised by seemingly random failures known as bit rot.”
Digital materials, like their physical counterparts, can be priceless. Schumacher recalls a training event held within the lands of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in the Pacific Northwest. A member of a Tribal Nation approached the training seeking assistance with a box of tapes that held recordings of Tribal Elders speaking in their native language.
“Only a couple of Elders were still living, and their language was at risk of being lost with their passing,” Schumacher said. “At the POWRR event, we were able to provide critical digital preservation training and assist them in formulating a plan to rescue the recordings from the legacy media, perform initial curation actions on the recordings, and create a workflow to preserve the recordings of their Elders into the future.”
The new NEH funding will support the development, planning and presentation of five professional development events discussing how to introduce measures to enhance levels of digital preservation into existing library, archive and museum workflows. The three-day events each serve 30 practitioners. Two will be held at NIU Naperville, two at Arizona State University, Tempe, and one at Oklahoma State University.
Institution professionals will be trained to programmatically transfer materials to a central and backed-up storage system, establish workflows for their ongoing curation, and monitor their integrity using free, open-source software to aid their efforts. Each professional receives individualized consultations to identify gaps in their current processes and create longer-term preservation plans. The project also provides a peer group of fellow practitioners who are facing similar challenges, resulting in a community of practice with a built-in support system.
Frederick Barnhart, NIU Libraries dean, said he’s proud of NIU’s leadership role in the Digital POWRR Project.
“By helping other libraries and museums to use open-source software and tools to curate and share their unique collections, we all benefit and gain greater access to culture and history that otherwise might remain hidden,” Barnhart said.
 
 

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